In survey after survey, research shows that ‘executive presence’ and ‘gravitas’ are hallmarks of a strong, effective leader. Yet these same studies struggle to define executive presence. What exactly is it? A new study grapples with this question and the results are illuminating.
Seeking to understand executive presence from the perspective of business professionals and leaders, researchers identified a set of core characteristics associated with it. Some of the characteristics are unsurprising and show up in most popular writing around the topic of presence. These include physical appearance, projected confidence and communication/engagement skills. Other characteristics, however, might be more unexpected. These include integrity, expertise and values-in-action–all qualities that reveal themselves over time.
Executive presence is more than cosmetic–strong presence associates with deeply held values, consistent action and expertise.
One of the study’s key findings is that presence is based on perception and that this perception may change over time. In other words, presence is both impression- and evaluation-based. Someone may make a great first impression and enter the room with great presence. However, if this impression is not backed up with consistent behavior, expertise and integrity, their perceived presence will fade over time. Conversely, someone may not have a strong presence at first glance, but their behavior over time can help them build presence as they build trust with colleagues and partners.
Executive influence is composed of both authority and presence.
The research also shows that presence and authority are not directly related. People who may have great authority might exert considerable influence without having strong executive presence. While having a position of power may enhance presence, presence is not necessary to exert authority if the person is authorized to make demands of people. Authority-based influence, then, is very different from the type of influence that comes organically from the perception of strong presence.
The entire study is worth a read and can be found here.
The researchers note that the study has significant limitations. For example, it did not examine the impact of social/cultural norms on perceptions of executive presence. However, even with limitations, the study is notable for its focus on defining executive presence instead of offering tips for building it.
Much research and coaching revolves around helping clients increase or deepen their executive presence. By revealing that perception of presence changes over time with longer exposure to the leader’s style, we begin to uncover new layers of complexity.
Executive presence is about much more than working a room, dressing right or projecting confidence. It’s also about a long-term commitment to integrity, delivering on the promise of a strong first impression, committing one’s values to action and demonstrating expertise.
Over the coming weeks, we will look at other aspects of this study, focusing on a gender gap that researchers found in the perception of presence.